It’s no coincidence that the novel that Alias Grace is based on was written by Margaret Atwood, the genius behind the most disturbing show of the year: The Handmaid’s Tale. Alias Grace is just as unsettling (if not more so), but it’s also thought-provoking and powerful television.
The story of Grace Marks, a housemaid and immigrant from Ireland who was imprisoned for the murder of her employer, Alias Grace is extremely difficult to watch. The ordeals that Grace encounters are harrowing and vile, and yet Sarah Gadon’s masterful performance keeps you invested right until the very end. Much like Elisabeth Moss in Handmaid’s, Gadon can evoke so much emotion with a glance, but it’s also her line delivery and mesmerizing voice that engross you. Her ordeal is downright traumatizing, and you ache for her plight a great deal. In fact, I frequently felt anxious and disturbed while watching her story unfold, and that’s not something you can say about a lot of shows these days.
Everything about Alias Grace just works: the confident direction (the talented Mary Harron helmed all six episodes), the eerie lighting, the masterful sound design – all these elements come together to shape a spellbinding story. By highlighting how trauma can affect our memories, the show constantly obscures the truth from us, maintaining a hypnotizing sense of mystery throughout the journey. As for the cast, there’s only one weak link in the cast: Edward Holcroft as Dr. Simon Jordan. Whereas Gadon’s charisma just pops off the screen, Holcroft is a bit of a dull presence and he threatens to bring everything to a screeching halt at times. Nevertheless, Gadon keeps it all afloat. Her spark powers every single frame. Give her all the awards – every. single. one.
It’s worth noting that the show’s finale is a wonderfully ambiguous affair (skip this paragraph if you haven’t completed the show because I will spoil all its twisted glory). By the time the finale ends, the show has explored a number of different possibilities that could explain everything we witnessed. Was Grace possessed by Mary Whitney, lending the show a supernatural edge? Or is she simply severely mentally ill and exhibiting signs of split personality disorder? Or maybe she’s just gone off the deep-end and is manipulating everybody in sight with her lies. The possibilities are endless, and the answers are not clear-cut. It’s yours to decipher and unravel.
Finely acted and gorgeously shot, this miniseries is haunting but essential viewing.